When a group of hobby scientists turned to Kickstarter to fund their dream of developing glow-in-the-dark plants that could someday replace things like electric street lights, the response was overwhelming. The idea netted close to half a million dollars, far surpassing its modest $65,000 goal. Success!
But a problem stemming from the glowing-plants project quickly took root.
Sprinkled among the reward tiers were promises of glowing plants and seeds, and over 7,000 backers jumped at the chance to acquire their very own living nightlight. And that’s exactly what alarmed organizations like ETC Group and Friends of the Earth, who quickly petitioned the U.S. Agriculture Department (which regulates GMOs) and Kickstarter to halt the release of seeds from the project—an effort they dubbed “Kickstopper.”
Their primary concern? Rewards of genetically manipulated seeds or living plants, “…will likely result in widespread, random and uncontrolled release of bioengineered seeds and plants produced through the controversial and risky techniques of synthetic biology.”
The pressure worked. Effective July 31, Kickstarter quietly changed their policy, and will no longer allow projects to offer genetically modified organisms to financial backers.
The policy change was noteworthy, and Kickstarter is suddenly in the hot-seat with GMO supporters after cofounder Yancey Strickler told the tech website The Verge, “We are simply reflecting where the scientific community stands as we understand it.”
In an email exchange with the website, Strickler said: “We reached out to a few scientists, researchers, and others in the biohacking world for their perspective. What emerged is that the scientific community is unsettled on the best practices and ethics of releasing genetically modified organisms into the world.” He adds, “After a lot of deliberation we felt the most prudent course was to create a narrow rule that addressed the most debated part of this: offering genetically modified organisms as rewards to backers. It intentionally does not prohibit projects involving biohacking in general.”
We talk a lot here at TakePart about genetically modified plants, mostly in the context of food: corn, soybean, sugar beets. But the “Glowing Plants” project uses the term synthetic biology to describe itself. What is that exactly?
The New York Times describes it this way: “Synthetic biology is a nebulous term and it is difficult to say how, if at all, it differs from genetic engineering. In its simplest form, genetic engineering involves snipping a gene out of one organism and pasting into the DNA of another. Synthetic biology typically involves synthesizing the DNA to be inserted, providing the flexibility to go beyond the genes found in nature.”
While Kickstarter may have banned GMO awards for now, Strickler made it clear it was a policy they’ll be monitoring.
“We’ll continue to follow this debate and we’ll be watching closely to see where it settles. When best practices emerge, we’ll look at them closely and see how they might fit within Kickstarter,” he says.
Until then? Budding biohackers may need to bring their projects to other crowdfunding sites.